Sundance 2016: Festival Preview

Films we're looking forward to at this year's edition.

by Amber Wilkinson

Sometimes when you get emails from publicists ahead of film festivals they refer to "curtain raiser" articles. It generally seems a strange choice of words for cinema but in the case of Sundance Film Festival - which starts tomorrow (January 21) in Park City, Utah, and runs until January 31 - it seems oddly appropriate.

This is not simply because so many of the films in the programme are world premieres (103 out of 123), but also because so many of the films are from first-time directors and starring unknown names, lifting the curtain on the possibility of entire careers. Of course, this sort of thing happens at film festivals everywhere - but the strike rate of Sundance is particularly high, with the programme this year offering the prospect of 49 first-time directors (up from 45 last year), 30 of whom will be in competition.

Recent names to make their mark include director Ryan Coogler, who has gone on to direct the critically acclaimed Creed after winning the 2013 US competition with Fruitvale Station and Ben Zeitlin, whose Beasts Of The Southern Wild went on from winning the US competition to be nominated for two Oscars. His follow-up, Wendy, has been shooting in Antigua, and the young star he discovered, Quvenzhané Wallis, has gone on to star in a clutch of films, including the recent Annie remake.

All of this means that actually selecting films to write about in a "curtain raiser" is both highly subjective and a lottery, but with that in mind, here's a handful of films I either recommend or am hoping to catch in the next 10 days.

US Competition

Markees Christmas in Morris From America - 13-year-old Morris, a hip-hop loving American, moves to Heidelberg, Germany, with his father. In this completely foreign land, he falls in love with a local girl, befriends his German tutor-turned-confidant, and attempts to navigate the unique trials and tribulations of adolescence.
Markees Christmas in Morris From America - 13-year-old Morris, a hip-hop loving American, moves to Heidelberg, Germany, with his father. In this completely foreign land, he falls in love with a local girl, befriends his German tutor-turned-confidant, and attempts to navigate the unique trials and tribulations of adolescence. Photo: Sean McElwee

Always a tricky section to pick just one film from but I'm really looking forward to seeing Chad Hartigan's Morris From America - his follow-up to the excellent This Is Martin Bonner, which competed in the Next section in 2012. His latest, promises to bring some fresh ideas to the coming-of-age genre as a hip-hop loving American teenager moves to Germany. Hartigan fans should also look out for his supporting role in Slamdance film Hunky Dory, about a drag queen who suddenly finds he has to take on responsibility. I'm also keen to see Orange Is The New Black writer Sian Heder's Tallulah, which stars Elliot Page as a young woman who passes off the daughter of a rich but negligent mum as her own. After the lacklustre Freeheld - despite a terrific performance from Page - it would be great to see him take centre stage in a hit.

Next

Royalty Hightower and Da Sean Minor in The Fits - in this psychological portrait, Toni, an 11-year-old tomboy, is assimilating into a tight-knit dance team in Cincinnati’s West End when a mysterious outbreak of fainting spells plagues the team, and her desire for acceptance is twisted.
Royalty Hightower and Da Sean Minor in The Fits - in this psychological portrait, Toni, an 11-year-old tomboy, is assimilating into a tight-knit dance team in Cincinnati’s West End when a mysterious outbreak of fainting spells plagues the team, and her desire for acceptance is twisted. Photo: Tayarisha Poe

The only film showing in Next this year that isn't a world premiere, is Anna Rose Helmer's The Fits and I'd say that's because the programmers know a gem when they see it. If this hadn't already been in the Venice Biennale, it could easily have been a strong contender in the competition section at Sundance. Featuring a cracking debut turn from the wonderfully named young star Royalty Hightower, if all the films in Next are this strong, they we're in for a treat. I'm also a sucker for a spot of magic, so JD Dillard's Sleight - about a young street magician, who has to use every trick up his sleeve to save his sister - is on the cards.

World Cinema Competition

Stef Aerts, Tom Vermeir and Boris Van Severen in Belgica - in the midst of Belgium's nightlife scene, two brothers start a bar and get swept up in its success.
Stef Aerts, Tom Vermeir and Boris Van Severen in Belgica - in the midst of Belgium's nightlife scene, two brothers start a bar and get swept up in its success. Photo: Thomas Dhanens

The selection of Felix van Groeningen's Belgica as a Day One film by the programmers suggests that it will probably be a crowd-pleaser - festivals always want to start on a good note - but I was already sold thanks to his romantic, warm, funny and heartbreaking 2012 The Broken Circle Breakdown. If its anything as good as that, it'll be tough to beat. I'm also intrigued by The Lure - billed as "a weird, wild 1980s set Polish horror"... and that's before you get to the fact that it's about mermaids. No UK entries in competition this year, sadly, but I'll also be looking out for Irish co-production Mammal, directed by Rebecca Daly, which is about a woman's relationship with a homeless young man and sounds as though it will be in a similar vein to last year's Glassland.

US Documentary Competition/Documentary Premieres

Maya Angelou And Still I Rise - the remarkable story of Maya Angelou — iconic writer, poet, actress and activist whose life has intersected some of the most profound moments in recent American history.
Maya Angelou And Still I Rise - the remarkable story of Maya Angelou — iconic writer, poet, actress and activist whose life has intersected some of the most profound moments in recent American history. Photo: Wayne Miller

There's no getting away from the 'local' nature of a lot of the films in this section, with some of the issues more domestic than international, for example, the problems faced by US abortion clinics (Trapped) or Weiner, about a mayoral candidate - but that's to be expected at a US festival. I'm curious to see Holy Hell - directed by an unnamed filmmaker - about a secretive, spiritual community that was torn apart, and as a long-time fan of Maya Angelou, I'm also hoping to catch Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack's Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.

World Documentary Competition

The Settlers - the first film of its kind to offer a comprehensive view of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, The Settlers is a historical overview, geopolitical study, and intimate look at the people at the core of the most daunting challenge facing Israel and the international community today.
The Settlers - the first film of its kind to offer a comprehensive view of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, The Settlers is a historical overview, geopolitical study, and intimate look at the people at the core of the most daunting challenge facing Israel and the international community today. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

There is huge variety in this section this year, from Pieter-Jan De Pue's docu-fiction exploration of child miners The Land Of The Enlightened to Maya Goded's 20-years-in-the-making film Plaza De La Soledad, about the lives of Mexican prostitutes. If I have to plump for one, however, it will be Shimon Dotan's The Settlers. He brought an interesting angle to the Israel/Palestine debate in 2006's Hot House, so I'm hoping his return to the subject - promising an "historical overview and geopolitical study" of Jewish settlers in the West Bank - will be as rewarding.

Midnight

Under The Shadow - Tehran, 1988: As the Iran-Iraq War rumbles into its eighth year, a mother and daughter are slowly torn apart by the bombing campaigns on the city coupled with the country's bloody revolution. As they struggle to stay together amidst these terrors, a mysterious evil stalks through their apartment.
Under The Shadow - Tehran, 1988: As the Iran-Iraq War rumbles into its eighth year, a mother and daughter are slowly torn apart by the bombing campaigns on the city coupled with the country's bloody revolution. As they struggle to stay together amidst these terrors, a mysterious evil stalks through their apartment. Photo: Kit Fraser

Jetlag from Britian is no friend to midnight screenings but I am going to catch the UK-produced Under The Shadow, which sounds on paper as though it could follow in the footsteps of The Babadook, using horror as a reflection of real-life strife in Tehran of the 1980s, as a woman's daughter becomes increasingly odd after her dad goes off to war.

Premieres

Sing Street - a boy growing up in Dublin during the Eighties escapes his strained family life and tough new school by starting a band to win the heart of a beautiful and mysterious girl.
Sing Street - a boy growing up in Dublin during the Eighties escapes his strained family life and tough new school by starting a band to win the heart of a beautiful and mysterious girl. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

These always start off as hot tickets but experience has taught me that better, if less starry, films, tend to lie elsewhere in the Sundance programme. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to seeing Once director John Carney's lastest Sing Street - about a new kid in a school who tries to fit in by starting a band - and The Hunt For The Wilderpeople from Taiki Waititi, whose films including Boy and What We Do In The Shadows have an enviable mix of comedy and heart. Wilderpeople tells the story of a boy on the run from his Uncle in the Australian outback, which sounds like a recipe for plenty of laughs and a return to the fertile ground of Boy's childlike imagination.

Spotlight

Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson). Grímur Hákonarson: "We actually did a sheep casting and we found sheep who were used to being around humans, because most sheep will just run away."
Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson). Grímur Hákonarson: "We actually did a sheep casting and we found sheep who were used to being around humans, because most sheep will just run away." Photo: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

It should be - and is - difficult to find a dud in this section which is culled from the best of other film festivals across the globe. I heartily recommend Grímur Hákonarson's Rams - a witty and surprisingly moving drama about two sheep-farming brothers who haven't spoken to one another for decades. I also can't wait to finally catch up with Jeremy Saulnier's follow up to Blue Ruin, Green Room - out in the UK on May 13 - about a punk band who are trapped after an incident of neo-Nazi violence.

New Frontier

Collisions
Collisions
There's always something eye-catching in this section, which has a space given over to virtual reality and art installations. Last year's big hit was Google Cardboard - with big queues to pick up a free pair of the virtual reality goggles that work from videos on your mobile. I'm particularly interested in Lynette Wallworth's Collisions, which promises a "virtual reality journey reality journey to the homeland of indigenous elder Nyarri Morgan...[whose] first contact with Western culture came in the 1950's via a dramatic collision between his traditional world view and the cutting edge of Western science and technology when he witnessed first hand and with no context, an atomic test".

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We've recently covered New Directors/New Films andTallinn Black Nights, DOC NYC, Sheffield DocFest, the London Korean Film Festival, Welsh horror festival Abertoir, New York's Newfest, the October edition of Frightfest, the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, the London Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival.



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